During the month of January, my wife and I were attending parent-teacher conferences for one of our children. We walked into the building and went to sign in at the desk. There, my wife pointed out the odd date on the sign in form. Instead of reading, “1/15/13,” as one might expect given that the month was January, it read, “4/15/13.” Given the freezing temperatures outside, one might be forgiven for assuming that this represented some sort of wishful thinking. In fact, though, closer examination of the sign in sheet revealed that someone earlier in the day had written the date using a stylized number “1,” such that it looked vaguely like a four. Everyone after that simply copied down the date as they saw it written, apparently without giving any thought to the fundamental lack of logic inherent in the situation. In other words, even though it was January, even though it was freezing cold and there was snow on the ground, even though we weren’t even a month past New Year’s Day, even though, in other words, all the data screamed “January,” people were writing April for the date.
Now, if this phenomenon were limited to people signing into meetings, it would be quite unremarkable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. This sort of automatic pilot behavior happens all too often in businesses. In businesses, though, it’s rarely quite so benign as writing down the wrong date on a form. Rather, it can involve misreading or misunderstanding critical instructions, with results that do not become obvious until much later in the product development cycle.
At one company, engineers assembling a set of medical tools would quickly glance at the notes left by the person who worked on the previous step, and then take the appropriate actions based on those notes. Alas, the “sign of the fours” played in quite frequently: when the notes were ambiguous, people would often interpret them in ways that made no logical sense given the nature of the product or the point in the development cycle.
At another company, a senior person gave a rather bizarre presentation to a client because he was quite convinced that was what he’d been told to do, even though logic would have suggested that just maybe he was misinterpreting his instructions. In a famous example from WWII, a young pilot mistook the humming of the general sitting next to him in the cabin as instructions to raise the landing gear, even though the plane was still racing along the runway. As a result, the plane crashed. Time after time, we’ve all seen people make apparently nonsensical decisions or take actions that appear to make no logical sense simply because they are reacting to the “sign of the fours”; we may even have done it ourselves from time to time.
So what is going on here?
In virtually every one of these situations, the common element is time. “So what?” you might ask. Time, after all, is a common element in every situation. The key, though, is in how we perceive time. When we perceive themselves as being rushed or short on time, we tend to make snap decisions based on whatever is in front of us. That number looks like a four? Okay, write down a four for the month even though it’s January. The general gestured with his hand? Clearly he wants the landing gear up even though we’re still on the ground.
Ironically, this perception of time is often an illusion. We talk all the time about “saving time,” but no matter how much we save, it’s never there when we want to make a withdrawal. Time is money until we actually try to get a refund. We all get sixty minutes to the hour, 24 hours to the day. Nothing we do can change that. The only real decisions we have are how we allocate that time and how much we can get done during the time available to us. Counter-intuitively, the more we try to schedule, cram, and pack our days, the less we actually do: we become more prone to distractions and mistakes. Athletes who feel rushed moved very fast, but lose more often. Athletes who have learned the trick of feeling like they have lots of time tend to win, even in such high speed sports as fencing.
The secret, therefore, is to structure our time so that we don’t feel so rushed. It’s not that we’re changing the amount of time we have, merely how we perceive it. The master fencer perceives time in slow motion, and thus appears to always be in the right place at the right time. Since all of us have a tendency to underestimate how long projects will take, one trick is to change our perception of the deadline by creating a series of challenging, but realistic, deadlines that we can miss and still be ahead of the game. So long as we take our self-imposed deadlines reasonably seriously, we will get a great deal done, yet when we don’t make them, we still feel in control and able to focus. It’s when we feel events rushing down upon us that we become most vulnerable to the “sign of the fours.”
Of course, this whole discussion does beg the question of how many of those people who wrote “4/15/13” instead of “1/15/13” then went rushing off to deal with their income taxes.